As readers of this blog will know, I am no fan of the so-called ‘points system’ in Ireland, under which applicants for university programmes are admitted in accordance with the points score they achieved on foot of their final school examination results (the Leaving Certificate). The result of this system is that the points needed to enter a certain course are determined by supply and demand rather than the demands of the course. For example, one of the most popular degree programmes has been law, and so it has attracted very high points requirements; whereas science subjects have been less popular, and students have been able to get admitted on much lower points – yet few would argue that science students need to be less gifted intellectually than law students. I have written on this topic in the past. My view has been that almost anything would be better than the points system, as it is pushing young people into careers for which they may not be best suited and which they are choosing solely because of the points attached to the relevant degree programmes.
When therefore those universities with medical schools, under some external pressure, agreed last year to alter their selection processes for medicine by introducing an aptitude test, I was certainly willing to consider this as a potentially useful initiative. What these institutions did was to use the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT), which has been developed by an Australian company. This consists of a multiple choice paper, which the student must pass and the results of which are then included in the computation of the points score (together with the Leaving Certificate results).
As the first group of would-be medical students has just undertaken this exercise, a debate has come alive as to whether it is a sensible mechanism, and indeed whether it might be applied to other programmes as well. In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper it is suggested that the Department of Education and Science might like to see this kind of testing considered more generally, while in the same paper the leading oncologist (and DCU adjunct professor) John Crown expresses serious reservations about the capacity of this kind of test to measure aptitude (or perhaps anything very much), and argues that a it may end up ‘favouring the clever work-shirker over the diligent student’. And still in the Irish Independent, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, takes a very different view and argues as follows:
‘The approach taken by the HPAT, combined with the Leaving Cert, provides an additional means of predicting the aptitude of a student for a particular programme. It operates in a number of other countries as part of the selection process for higher education. Unlike an interview process, it is transparently objective…
Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older tried and trusted models of assessment.’
I’m not altogether sure where I stand on this, in large part because I have not seen what the HPAT looks like (though I have just ordered a sample paper). On the one hand, I am very strongly in favour of finding something better than the points system, which has over recent years become more and more damaging to Irish society. On the other hand, an aptitude test consisting of a multiple choice paper, which can be (and will be) the subject of grind school preparation, probably isn’t the answer either. John Crown’s view that only the very best should study medicine (and the nature of that profession may mean he is right) can be met by attaching a very high minimum points requirement to that programme. But we need to move away quickly from the current idea that in order to study biotechnology you only need to be about half as intelligent as you have to be to study law.
I am still inclined to think that once you have set genuine performance thresholds actual selections could be made by lottery, as has been done in the Netherlands. It would be better than what we have now, and would avoid adding one more controversial and maybe dubious testing element.